By Tim Leeds
While the Milk River is still a long way from full, the outlook is better than last year.
Snow albeit snow with little moisture content has piled up at the headwaters of the Milk, and some has accumulated on the plains around the river. The level of snowpack, and more importantly, water content, is actually above average at the headwaters.
"That's the real good part of the help for the Milk (River) system this year," Roy Kaiser said today.
Kaiser, water supply specialist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Bozeman, said how much of that water gets down the Milk River to Fresno Reservoir and communities and irrigators east of it is another question.
The ground is so dry because of the drought that quite a bit of the water released to flow down the river could be absorbed into the ground.
"But it will be much improved over last year," Kaiser said.
Tim Felchle, engineer for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Billings, said Wednesday that the snow on the ground now will help improve the Milk River level, although the bureau doesn't know the exact amount of snow and moisture on the plains.
"It should improve the outlook, the spirit, of the Hi-Line," he said.
Felchle said the level of the reservoirs is looking better than it did last year. Lake Sherburne, which is the source of the St. Mary Project water diversion for the Milk River, is almost at a normal level with about 23,000 acre-feet of water. It held about 14,500 acre-feet at this time last year.
Nelson Reservoir, by Malta, is about 56 percent of capacity right now, Felchle said, which is close to normal for this time of year. Part of the reason was a late release of 5,000 acre-feet of water from Fresno last fall.
Fresno is very low. The reservoir is about 5 percent full, with about 5,320 acre-feet. Felchle said that is about 15 percent of the normal amount for this time of year.
But the higher level of Lake Sherburne will help that, he said, as will any runoff from the snow on the plains.
"Anything we can get now for plains runoff would be greatly appreciated," he said.
Felchle said if there is a slow warming trend, most of the snowmelt will probably be absorbed into the ground. But if the temperature warms rapidly, he said, there should be some runoff into the Milk River system.
In an average year, about half the water in the Milk River system comes from the headwaters of the river and from plains runoff. The other half comes from the St. Mary Project diversion, an irrigation system that was one of the first projects the Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to work on when the bureau was created in 1902.
Last year, about 95 percent of the water in the system came from the St. Mary Project.
The Milk River is the source of water for irrigation from Havre east to where it flows into the Missouri River near Glasgow. Fresno Reservoir, which was built in 1939 mainly for irrigation purposes, and the river are also the source of drinking water for many communities, including Havre.